What Is Chai Tea?
A gloomy, cold day can be perfect for a cup of comforting tea. Drinking a cup of hot brewed tea may be inherently restoring, offering a soothing effect. So, what about drinking a cup of chai? What is unique about chai? Is a cup of chai the same as a chai latte? Let's take a deep dive into chai and discover everything you need to know about the tasty, aromatic tea.
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What Is Chai?
Chai is the word for "tea" in Hindi, the language spoken widely throughout India and in communities in other countries such as Mauritius, Fiji, Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago and Nepal. Masala chai, meaning "spiced tea" in Hindi, is often referred to as "chai tea" or just "chai" in the U.S.
Chai consists of black tea brewed with water, milk, spices and a sweetener, such as honey or sugar, offering a fragrant and sweet aroma and flavor. The spices included in chai can vary, but the most common spices used are cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and cloves. Other variations may include black peppercorn, nutmeg, fennel and more.
Origins of Chai
Chai originated in India, with the original version made entirely with spices only, such as ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and black pepper—common spices in India that are used for both culinary and medicinal purposes. In the 1800s, when the British Empire colonized India, the traditional chai was transformed by the inclusion of black tea leaves, milk and sweeteners, which is commonly known as masala chai today. As masala chai consumption increased in India, the preparation methods and variations of chai also grew in other regions.
Components of Chai
A typical masala chai is made with ginger, cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and black pepper, along with black tea leaves, hot water and hot milk. The sweetness of chai will vary according to one's preferences. Other variations of chai may also use fennel, star anise or saffron.
No matter what the chai variations are, chai lovers may agree that chai offers balanced spiciness and sweetness. Along with the solid black tea flavor, some people may also describe chai as similar to pumpkin spice or gingerbread, making it a perfect beverage for the fall and winter months. Depending on the spices used, some may also say this spiced tea has a sweet vanilla flavor—this aromatically sweet and floral flavor is due to the presence of cardamom.
One cup of chai (8 ounces) offers the following nutrition, generally speaking:
- 120 calories
- 3.8 grams protein
- 2.3 grams fat
- 21.5 grams carbohydrates
- 0.24 grams fiber
- 21 grams sugars
- 48 milligrams sodium
- 21.6 milligrams caffeine
Because chai is made up of multiple ingredients and has various preparations using different milk types, its nutritional content will vary. Depending on the chai mix and how the tea is prepared, it may also contain:
How much of these nutrients are present in the tea depends on the amount of each ingredient used to make it. And, of course, larger cups of chai will have more of all the nutrients, including calories, sugars and fat. A grande size (16 ounces) is double what's listed above.
Potential Health Benefits of Chai
While chai alone may not be associated with specific health benefits, the ingredients included may support good health.
May lower heart disease risk
Drinking tea regularly has been shown to provide health benefits, specifically related to heart health. A 2019 study published in the International Journal of Health Sciences noted that consuming black tea may reduce blood pressure and improve heart health. Another study from the same year published in Trends in Food Science & Technology found that drinking 450 milliliters (about 2 cups) of green tea without adding any milk and sugar may offer the most benefits for lowering the risk of heart disease. These findings are also aligned with many research studies that suggest consuming too much sugar may increase the risk of high blood pressure and chronic inflammation, which are risk factors for heart disease.
Adding sugar to chai may also impact its nutritional value and overall health benefits. For example, store-bought or café-made chai varieties may contain more added sugar than a cup of home-brewed chai. Keeping daily added sugar intake to no more than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) for women and 36 grams (9 teaspoons) for men is the American Heart Association's recommendation.
May help manage blood sugar levels
While a cup of unsweetened chai may help maintain blood sugar levels and prevent sudden spikes, cinnamon and ginger in chai may also reduce insulin resistance. When you have insulin resistance, your body can't properly transport the sugar in the blood to cells. When your insulin works properly, your body can effectively transport the sugar in the blood to cells. Looking to keep your blood sugar levels at bay? Unsweetened chai may be one of the best choices. Of course, the other foods you eat also matter—check out our diabetes meal plans and recommendations.
May give the brain a boost
Drinking tea regularly may be linked to reducing the risk of anxiety and improving attention span and memory. A 2022 study published in Food Quality and Preference showed that drinking tea may improve one's attention span, specifically in solving task-oriented problems. The bioactive compounds present in cinnamon are also believed to play a role in decreasing the risk of Alzheimer's disease.
May improve your mood
Drinking tea may improve one's mood—thanks to its bioactive compounds, such as polyphenols and theanine, which may have anti-depressive and relaxation properties. Cinnamon has also been noted in some studies as an ingredient that potentially could uplift one's mood. However, more research is needed to determine the relationship between tea's bioactive compounds and depression.
How to Make Chai
The way to brew a perfect cup of chai varies among individuals. You can make a cup of chai from a pre-made spice blend or from scratch. Traditional masala chai uses Assam black tea leaves (named for the region in India in which they are produced) and a combination of ginger, cardamom, cinnamon stick, peppercorn and cloves. The preparation method differs widely between regions, families and individuals—some prefer using whole spices, while others use ground spices; some may toast the whole spices before grinding them into powder.
To make your chai, you may use one of these three common methods:
- Combine all ingredients in one pot and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the desired depth of flavor is reached.
- Simmer water and milk, and then add tea leaves and spices.
- Bring the water to a boil, add the tea leaves and spices, then simmer. Add milk.
You may need to alter the tea to your liking due to taste preferences or health concerns. For instance, you may want to use rooibos instead of black tea for a caffeine-free chai. You may also choose plant-based milk for your chai over cow's milk.
How to Make a Chai Latte
Keep in mind that a cup of chai is not the same as a chai latte. A chai latte that you buy at your local coffee shop may use a chai concentrate that is steamed with milk, which includes more milk than a traditional cup of chai.
You may choose to use a pre-made chai concentrate for convenience, which is perfectly OK. Look for one that offers no more than 15 grams of added sugars per serving to keep your added sugars consumption in check. Also, read the ingredients list to see the types of ingredients used—look for one that includes the essential components of masala chai—ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom.
Drinking tea, including masala chai, is considered part of a healthy lifestyle. There is a wide range of chai variations sold at markets, grocery stores, coffee and tea shops and on online. Find the kind you like or make your own blend at home. At EatingWell, we've created some recipes using chai, including our Christmas Cider, Overnight Oats and this Chia Pudding.
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